The Cannon Spa

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Before and after: A weather-beaten Gettysburg cannon and another one fresh from rehab.
 
2006_3_18
Before and after: A weather-beaten Gettysburg cannon and another one fresh from rehab.
 
friends of the national parks at gettysburg2006_3_18a

Where can you go to fix a 1,580-pound cast-iron cannon carriage? Well, if you’re near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, you can simply—or maybe not so simply—roll it to the repair shop behind 302 York Street.

There, on a typical day, you might find bronze gun tubes stacked up awaiting their carriages, like nineteenth-century society ladies after a ball. You can see a blacksmith forging by hand metal parts that have been machine-made for decades. And you can watch volunteers carefully painting carriages “cannon” green and black, just the way the originals would have looked in July 1863.

Like most American towns in the mid-nineteenth century, Gettysburg had a carriage shop. What’s unusual is that Gettysburg still has its carriage shop. Of course, Gettysburg still has its cannon too—410 of them spread out across the 5,990-acre Gettysburg National Military Park.

The Artillery Restoration Facility is one of the most unusual machine shops in the world. Since beginning operation in January 1999, it has restored more than 200 Gettysburg guns, with the rest to follow. The shop is the result of a unique public/private partnership. The National Park Service operates it and finances the restoration, but a nonprofit group, Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, pays the rent on the facility. A group of 10 to 20 volunteers from the Friends work there, alongside two full-time Park Service employees.

There were 653 Union and Confederate cannon of various types fighting at Gettysburg. They were dragged around on wooden carriages weighing about 900 pounds. Many of the cannon on the field today, only a few of which took part in the battle, were released to Gettysburg from federal arsenals in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Their cast-iron replica carriages were made to be immobile and anchored to mark significant locations on the field.

Over the last century the carriages deteriorated from exposure to the elements, along with too many close encounters with lawn mowers, cars, and climbing youngsters. But the real problem came from the layers of lead paint that were applied to the guns over the years. By the late 1970s it had to be removed for health reasons, but this could not be done on the battlefield. For years there were no repairs at all, and the carriages began to fall apart. In 1996 the Park Service embarked on the first complete cannon-carriage restoration program ever, contracting with a company in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, to sandblast and remove the lead paint.

After sandblasting in Mechanicsburg, the carriages must be repaired and repainted. Metal parts, such as elevating handles, chains, and implement hooks, often are missing and the castings are damaged. Since these items were originally made by hand, it would ruin the historical accuracy to replace them with mass-produced parts. For similar reasons, the carriages and gun tubes must be hand-painted. “It’s like an antique piece of furniture: You wouldn’t spray paint it,” says Victor C. Gavin, an exhibits specialist at the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Before the repair shop opened, the Park Service could work on only 12 cannon a year in its limited space. That number has jumped to 30 a year. According to Gavin, it takes about 130 hours of work to rehabilitate a cannon carriage. All the wrought-iron work is done in the shop.

The volunteers help with the painting, and it takes about half a day of training before they can start, which is why the Service seeks recruits who can give their time on a regular basis. On a typical day two or three are there.

“If not for the volunteers, we’d be in trouble,” Gavin says. “Painting these carriages is very, very time-consuming because of all the trim details.” In the 1860s, he notes, the cannon and carriage business took “a lot of labor and a lot of mules and horses.”

Those mules and horses are all that is missing from the Gettysburg shop today. Tom Callahan